Friday, January 29, 2010

Electronic Resources #3: Accessing court cases online

When I submit an article to the CACIWC newsletter about a court decision, I am frequently asked to include instructions of how to find the decision online -- at no cost. Lawyers tend to subscribe to legal search engines or can access many legal resources through membership in the Connecticut Bar Association. In today's post and next Tuesday's we'll look at two different options that anyone can access.

Most decisions that will be noteworthy for keeping current with the state wetlands law will be issued by the Connecticut Supreme Court or the Connecticut Appellate Court. Yes, there are numerous trial court decisions issued under the Inland Wetlands & Watercourses Act, but they don't create precedent and are only binding to the parties involved in the case. I sometimes read trial court cases in the absence of appellate precedent on an issue, or to get a sense of how judges or other parties are framing a dispute.

For a recent Supreme Court or Appellate Court case, the state judicial department offers an easy way to finds cases online. The decisions are available online 1-2 weeks before they appear in the printed Connecticut Law Journal. The judicial department started posting decisions electronically in 2000. The cases from 2000 forward remain accessible.

Go to the homepage of the judicial website: In the column to the far left, go down to and click on "Opinions." You can read the explanation that corrections may occur in the printed text and are the official version. Cases are released at 11:30 am. For that day only, the case will appear in "Supreme Court Opinions" or "Appellate Court Opinions."

Beginning the very next day, that case will appear only in "Archive." You will need to know what court issued the decision. Otherwise you will have to search in each Archive (one for the Supreme Court, the other for the Appellate Court.) It is not necessary or even useful to have the case citation, such as 1 Conn. App. 1, because the decisions are listed chronologically in the order they were published in the Connecticut Law Journal. Don't fret, there's an easy way around that.

Click on the Archive you are searching.

Click on the year in which it was published. If you don't know the year, you will have to do the next few steps in every year until you find the case. You don't need the full name of the case or even of the party, as long as you spell the name you know correctly. In the grey highlighted box under the list of years are instructions to use the Control F on your keyboard to enter the portion of the case name. For instance, in 2003 you will arrive at the caption for the Avalon Bay case, when clicking on "Next" if you enter "avalon bay" but not if you enter "AvalonBay". Similarly, in 2004 you will arrive at the caption for the River Bend case if you enter "river bend" but not if you enter "RiverBend." Once at the case name, click on the docket number, the letters and numbers to the left of the case name. Note: if there are separate opinions (majority, concurring, dissenting) each will be listed separately.

Because the electronic version has not yet been printed, there is no pagination. For me the lack of page numbers is a drawback from relying on this source. I want to be able to locate by page number the quote I will use in future references. For the scientists and commission members reading this, the access to the case likely outweighs the lack of official page numbers.

Next time a free online search engine -- with page numbers and for Connecticut Supreme Court cases back to 1950.

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